Robert Powell smiles at the memory of being persuaded out of his retirement by Herman Greenburg to manage Rutledge Farm in Middleburg.
That was 17 years ago, and he still doesn’t look his age, but he’s doing what he loves most: working with horses.
Meanwhile, the Virginia Horse Shows Association bestowed their highest honor on Powell. In December, he was inducted into the VHSA Hall of Fame.
It all started during Powell’s childhood. He grew up in Arlington back when Northern Virginia was nothing but country: no Beltway, no warren-like neighborhoods, no Mixing Bowl. His father kept horses, and young Powell rode his ponies in shows. One competition took place on land that became the Hecht Company in Arlington.
He must have been very good, because he caught the attention of people who worked for Liz Whitney when she presided over Llangollen in Upperville and her string of horses was a powerhouse at shows. This was before World War II.
“I had three ponies of my own, but I was showing Jill, a Shetland pony show jumper,” recalls Powell. “Ms. Whitney’s men spotted me and that’s how I came to show her ponies. We went all over Virginia - to Warrenton and Upperville - and to Devon and the National - I was fortunate to see the old [Madison Square] Garden, we went there many times. There was a whole circuit we did.”
As soon as Powell finished school in 1947, he went to work for Mrs. A.C. (Theo) Randolph for three years.
“She was a fine lady - as good as I ever met,” said Powell. “Bob Kerns was manager when he hired me there, and he was tough. He was all horseman. In those days, you had to learn to do everything and do it right, or somebody else would get your job. I was fortunate to grow up in the era of great horsemen and great owners with tremendous show strings. At Llangollen, God only knows how many horses and ponies they carried on the show circuit - they took three or four hunt teams. We’ll never see anything like that again. I was fortunate enough to rub elbows with the very best horsemen in the world.”
Powell rode to hounds, because Mrs. Randolph often hunted seven days a week. He went out with Middleburg, Orange County, Rappahannock and Piedmont.
“Dr. Randolph was master at Piedmont, and if one of the other hunts didn’t go out, we’d go to the kennels and get Josh Crohn, the huntsman, to take hounds out for us,” he says, harking back to those distant days.
A serious back injury, however, put a premature end to his riding career. The young man lay in a hospital in traction for 12 weeks. Mrs. Randolph imported doctors from the city for second opinions, but at the time surgery wasn’t an option. The doctors’ warnings impressed Mrs. Randolph, and she was reluctant to let Powell get back on a horse.
“On a daily basis, I rode a little bit after that, but I suffered from that injury for years,” recalls Powell.
He took a job at Waverly Farm in Warrenton where Mrs. Gregory McIntosh’s manager was Eddie Bywaters, an old Virginia family known for horses, hounds and hunting. Then, Mr. August Busch of the Budweiser Beer Company hired him in 1953 to go to Charlottesville to build a show string for Sallie Busch who, years later, would be known as Sallie Wheeler. In the mid- to late-1960s, Powell got into Thoroughbreds.
According to a story that ran in The Blood-Horse 19 years ago, Powell made his name as the first professional handler of Thoroughbred yearlings at the annual summer sales at Saratoga in the ’50s for L. Clay Camp of Charlottesville. Through the’70s, he was under contract to Lee Eaton, one of the largest sales agents in the country, probably in the world.
“We had the first million dollar broodmare ever to walk through the sales - Queen Sucree,” says Powell. “She brought a million dollars in 1976. We had a lot of really good horses.”
Powell was also under contract for several years to John Finney at Fasig-Tipton Company to inspect their select sales yearlings. Powell was there when the Japanese came in and blew sales prices through the overhead. He’d have stayed right where he was, but a Thoroughbred owner in Kentucky wanted Powell to oversee his breeding operation.
“Mike Rutherford kept calling and calling, and in 1981 he hired me to manage Manchester Farm,” states Powell. “When I got tired, I came home - Christmas 1991 - and I left my assistant in charge: my oldest son, Bobby. He’s been there 26, 27 years now.”
For many years, Powell and Joahn, his wife, had owned a house in Orange, near Montpelier, but they lived wherever work took them. After they left Kentucky, they lived in that house for all of four months before Mr. Greenburg talked Powell into taking the job as manager of Rutledge.
“I told him I’d help him out, but I never promised how long I would stay,” admits Powell. “I’m about to start my 18th year here. We’ve had a good relationship and raised some nice horses. My younger son, Billy, lives in that house in Orange - he’s my assistant here at Rutledge.”
The Powells laugh about how long their retirement lasted, but Joahn knew exactly who and what she was marrying. Her father, Joe Green, was a highly respected horseman based in Warrenton, and Joahn grew up riding and hunting. It didn’t make her husband’s long absences during the first 30 years of their marriage any easier when he crisscrossed the country to show, inspect yearlings or go to the sales, but she understood the horse business and raised their children. They coped, and she’s right there with him at Rutledge Farm.
On Feb. 5, the Powells celebrated their 54th anniversary. They have two sons, both professional horsemen, seven grandchildren, and two great grandchildren. They also have a lot of memories and great stories.
“Bucky Reynolds gave the introduction for me that night [at The Homestead in Hot Springs] and he made a speech about me and gave me the trophy,” recalls Powell. “Joahn’s father got inducted into the VHSA Hall of Fame that same night, and Joahn’s brother, Peter Green, gave the speech for him.”
For all that Powell spent years handling and inspecting racehorse prospects among the yearlings, he never lost his eye for a show horse.
“When I first came here to Rutledge, I found Winter Party for Mrs. [Monica] Greenburg,” recalls Powell. “That mare showed sidesaddle all over the country. Smoky Everhart [sidesaddle expert based in Middleburg] told me where Winter Party was and he knew her owner. I took Mrs. Greenburg down there to see the horse in a snowstorm and she hit it off good with Winter Party. She got a lot of confidence and it all worked the way it should work.”
Of course, Powell has also enjoyed great success working with Greenburg’s Thoroughbreds. Colonial Affair, bred and raised at Rutledge Farm, was sold at Saratoga in September 1991 and won the Belmont Stakes in 1993, the Whitney, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup in 1994.
Researcher, a yearling Powell picked out at the M.A.R.E. Center Fall Sale and bought for $5,000, won the Queens County Grade III Stakes at Aqueduct (N.Y.), making it four in a row in 2008 over a distance of a mile and 3/16th. Rutledge Farm is going into the West Virginia breeding program with two of their homebred stallions, Rutledge Cat and Alydar’s Causeway.
Right now, they have a promising three-year-old, which means eligibility age-wise for the Triple Crown races, but how the colt performs over the next couple of months will be the decider. Meanwhile, it’s winter, and Powell has a whole lot of farm and bloodstock to supervise.
“I like getting up in the morning and going to work,” says Powell. “I go all day long, every day of the week. Sure, I think it keeps me young. I think I’m lucky, too. How many people 77 years old are able to do what I’m doing every day and feel like doing it?”
He’s done it all his life and, God willing, he’ll continue to do it, because there’s something he still wants to accomplish.
“I’d really like to raise Mr. Greenburg a Derby winner,” admits Powell.